Huntsville-area team fighting to land on moon, win Google XPRIZE jackpot

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MADISON, Ala. (WHNT) - Teams all over the world, including one with operations here in Huntsville, are racing to do something that's never been done before. They're working to land a privately-funded spacecraft on the surface of the moon.

The teams are fighting for a huge, $20 million jackpot in Google's Lunar XPRIZE competition.

For U.S.-based Moon Express, one of just 18 teams remaining in the contest, it's not just about the money. The team also hopes to create a new business model for private space exploration -- one that can sustain real commercial interest in the long run.

Tim Pickens, Chief Propulsion Officer for Moon Express, gave WHNT News 19 an exclusive look at the team's strategy for winning Google's competition.

Pickens first joined the contest as leader of the Rocket City Space Pioneers. That team eventually merged with Silicon Valley's Moon Express but kept and expanded operations in the Huntsville area.

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Now, Moon Express operates locally out of an unassuming Madison warehouse. The only sign that remarkable work is underway from the outside, is a simple Moon Express logo on the door.

"I think it's pretty cool that we are here," Pickens said, referencing Huntsville's collective expertise in rocketry dating back to the Apollo era. "We're able to hand pick a few propulsion experts."

The Madison warehouse contains a clean room and tools that will be used to help design and build a Moon Express spacecraft, in conjunction with work being done in California.

To win Google's prize, the team has to land a craft on the moon, move it around and transmit a high-definition feed back to Earth. Here's an overview of the tasks. Moon Express plans to use a hopper-like craft to bounce across the rocky terrain.

"When you are on the moon you have one-sixth gravity and there's no air resistance so we kind of use those to our advantage. And since we already have a spacecraft already designed to autonomously land, it's pretty trivial for it to repeat that and just hop," the company's public outreach liaison Brad Kohlenberg told CNN recently.

As Pickens explained, the Moon Express craft is designed to fit inside the payload of existing rockets, removing the difficult question of "how" to get to the moon.

Pickens said a hover test vehicle should be flying in Huntsville in the next six months. Moon Express will be building the real craft at the same time with a first launch expected sometime in late 2015.

Designing a flexible spacecraft is a key objective for Moon Express. The team wants to develop technology with commercial appeal and broad potential for investor returns.

That, in turn, could give Moon Express a viable business model for success, even if it loses the XPRIZE race.

According to Pickens, the current craft is already adaptable beyond the scope of the Google Lunar XPRIZE challenges.

"Let's say you have a dead satellite out there. This actually could be used to go up ultimately to help grapple a satellite," Pickens said, while showing WHNT News 19 some renderings of the craft.

Pickens feels the team has a real shot to win Google's contest, especially with established support from big names like Dynetics. Things are going well so far and the team is actively hiring in Huntsville and Silicon Valley.

Moon Express is also one of just five teams competing for Milestone Prizes in Google's contest. Those are monetary awards (separate from the grand prize) offered to teams that show key hardware or software achievements. The deadline for showcasing those is coming up September 30th.

The race is officially on to usher in a new era of exploration on the moon -- something Huntsville knows a lot about already.

Click here to apply for jobs with Moon Express.

Click here to learn more about the Moon Express team and Google's Lunar XPRIZE challenge.

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